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  • John William Godward
    Aug 9, 1861 - Dec 13, 1922
  • Pyrallis - Godward excelled in oil and watercolour. His work remained consistent throughout a remarkable career spanning almost forty years, over which time he created a vital stylistic niche for his oeuvre. Godward is best known for his highly finished paintings of pretty girls attired in classical robes, indeed, he became known as the master ‘classical tunic gown’ painter.
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  • Pyrallis

  • John William Godward
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  • 1918
    Oil on canvas

    'Godward's art was more than escapist; it was purposely beautiful in an age plunging headlong into atrocity. He sought to portray peace, feminine charm and ideal perfection by marvellously painted and composed classical pictures of beautiful women in halcyon marble environments. In this he was far more than a mere painter of 'beauties' but rather a creator of an imaginary world of bygone serenity painted with the utmost clarity and idealism.'

    Vern Grosvenor Swanson, J.W. Godward 1861-1922, The Eclipse of Classicism, 2018, p.184

    With her veil of soft, rose-hued material and her downward expression, Pyrallis is a particularly modest and introspective study of female beauty by an artist who mastered the subject and made it the obsession of his artistic life. Bright sunlight is reflected from the calm waters beyond her window and the cool white marble, creating a subtle effect of shadow and warmth on the model’s face and neck. These clever effects of light and colour add to the suggestion of Mediterranean sun and it is significant that the picture was painted in Rome.

    Pyrallis was painted during the first decade that Godward lived in Rome. He had visited Italy a few times before but in 1912 it seems that he resolved to move permanently to Rome. According to a family story, the move to Rome was due to Godward falling in love with one of the professional models he had met there during previous visits – an affair which shocked his family so deeply that his mother never forgave him. It is not known whether the girl reciprocated his love and she is only known by her soubriquet 'Dolcissima' (The Castaway) but she was undoubtedly the model for a series of depictions of beautiful Roman women painted over several years. She is probably the model for Pyrallis, painted six years after he first met her.

    The city of Rome, its gardens, its beautiful women and its tangible link to the ancient world inspired Godward's finest work. In his first year there he painted at least thirteen pictures of Roman models in togas, including some of his most accomplished and ambitious pictures; Reverie (sold in these rooms, 12 June 2003, lot 40), Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder (sold in these rooms, 30 March 1994, lot 195), An Offering to Venus (Christie's, London, 13 July 2016, lot 126) and A Tryst (Sotheby's, New York, 8 November 2012, lot 60). In that year the artist William Russell Flint visited the collection of artist studios at Villa Strohl-Fern, close to the entrance to the Gardens of the Villa Borghese, and wrote; ‘[Godward] had one of the finest studios in the Villa Strohl-Fern grounds. It has a wonderful outlook, and among the decorations was a horse’s skull locally supposed to be that of Strohl-Fern himself ‘when young’ The likeness was remarkable.'(ibid Swanson, p.135) The thirty-six studios were set amongst gardens of dappled light and fragrant flowers and the owner's collection of classical antiquities, a haven of solitude for a sensitive artist like Godward who just wanted to spend his days painting. His sister recorded his shyness and commitment to his work; ‘When he [Godward] awoke he immediately began to work and worked all day as long as he could. He just painted pictures all day and hardly came out of his studio. He didn’t do anything else.’ (ibid p.136)

    The name Pyrallis appears among the lovers of Gaius Caligula but it is unlikely that Godward’s picture was intended to be a literal portrayal of this Roman woman. It is more likely that the artist intended the name to be a more generic evocation of the ancient past and add to the languid romance of the picture. Godward had used the name of another of Caligula’s lovers for a picture in 1906, Drusilla, and appears to have selected female names almost randomly for his pictures of single figures in Roman dress. In 1918 Godward painted another similar veiled woman as Lycinna (sold in these rooms, 17 December 2009, lot 11). 1918 was a productive year in which he painted fourteen pictures, but they were mostly watercolours or pairs of small oil paintings. This was probably due to the artist convalescing from the ill-effects of the Spanish influenza epidemic which killed millions across Europe. Even amid the turmoil of the epidemic and the horrors of the war which had ravaged the continent, Godward adhered to his formula of painting a Paradise untouched by modernity.

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Other paintings by John William Godward:

Sitting for Her Portrait
Sitting for Her Portrait
An Edition de Luxe
An Edition de Luxe
A Classical Beauty
A Classical Beauty
John William GodwardJohn William Godward was a painter of classical genre scenes. His works embody the aesthetics of the circle of artists around Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), often described as the ‘Greco-West Kensington School’, who saw the world of Ancient Greece as a Golden Age of poetic beauties and graceful languor. He excelled in oil and watercolour. His work remained consistent throughout a remarkable career spanning almost forty years, over which time he created a vital stylistic niche for his oeuvre.

Godward is best known for his highly finished paintings of pretty girls attired in classical robes, indeed, he became known as the master ‘classical tunic gown’ painter. The diaphanous fabrics of their Grecian tunics highlight their pearly flesh surrounded by marble statuary and balustrades amidst abundant flowers. He was admired for his archaeologically exact rendering of the surfaces of marble and the flowing movement of classical costume. These girls reminded one critic of ‘true English roses’ as much as Hellenic goddesses; it is this gentle beauty which is Godward’s greatest charm. He first worked in his father’s prosperous insurance firm before training with William Hoff Wonter (1814-1881) to become an architect. He became a friend of Wontner’s son, William Clarke (1857-1930) who was also a painter. Vern Swanson has persuasively argued that Godward probably attended the St John’s Wood Art School at Elm Tree Road and the Clapham School of Art in the early 1880’s.

Godward exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy between 1887 and 1905 and at the Royal Society of British Artists, Suffolk Street, of which he became a member in 1889. Godward’s paintings were also often accepted to the Birmingham Royal Society of Artists’ Autumn Exhibitions. The art dealer Thomas McLean was an important champion of his work which was often included in his annual exhibitions. The prints made of Godward’s work by McLean and later by Eugène Cremetti introduced a wider audience to the artist’s work and guaranteed his popularity. He also exhibited internationally, making his début at the Paris Salon of 1899. In 1913 he was awarded the gold medal at the International Exhibition in Rome. The first years of the twentieth century saw a revival of interest in classicism, as prosperity rose throughout the British Empire. In fact, ‘the early Victorians believed that in ancient Rome they had found a parallel universe – a flawless mirror of their own immaculate world,” (cited in Iain Gale, ‘The Empire Looks Back’, Country Life, 30th May 1996, p.68.) This increased Godward’s popularity and success, with 1910 emerging as one of the best years for him as an artist.

Godward lived with his parents in Wimbledon until he achieved financial and critical success in 1889. He took a house at 34 St Leonard’s Terrace on the corner of Smith Street in Chelsea. He gave up his lease at Bolton Studios and rented a studio just around the corner. He filled his studio with marbles, ancient statues (mostly reproductions) and other antique objects, which he purchased from local shops and East End dealers, attempting to recreate a Graeco-Roman inspirational environment for his work. After a first trip to southern Italy in 1911, Godward moved to Rome where he remained until 1921. He took up residence in the Villa Stohl-Fern on the Monti Parioli near the Villa Borghese. The abundance of floral varieties and statuary in the villa’s elegant gardens appear in his work of this period. However, declining health and depression, meant Godward produced very few paintings in later life. Having returned to London in 1921, he committed suicide and was buried in Old Brompton Cemetery, Fulham.

The work of John William Godward is represented in the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery, Bournemouth and the Manchester City Art Gallery.